We expect our employees to change, but to what lengths do leaders need to do to achieve change? Change must begin with leaders to achieve it. In this episode, Alan Cahn, an Executive Coach at Henley Leadership Group, dives into creating transformation in the workplace. What we need to accomplish won’t happen if we don’t collaborate. It is key to achieving great lengths in our community. Choose to align yourself with people who have a vision of making possibilities happen. Tune in to this episode now!
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Transformational Leadership: Creating Transformation In The Workplace With Alan Cahn
Welcome, Alan Cahn of Alan Cahn Consulting and Faculty Member of the Henley Leadership Group. Thank you, Alan, for being with us here on the show. Why don't we start by having you share a little bit about who you are and what you do now, then I want to talk about how you got into this field.
I am a White American. It’s not a great group to be a part of right now, but I am a part of that. I've been married for 40-plus years. I have two grown children and two growing granddaughters. I'm a family man and my mission in life is that all hearts are full and all beings are enlightened. That's a mission that I attempt to live true to 24/7 even in my dreams. Besides enjoying life, I enjoy my work and I work as a coach, a consultant, and a trainer.
I want to give real props to you because a few years ago, I was 1 or 2 years into running my own consulting business. You reached out to me and gave me an opportunity to work with a client of yours doing some great work throughout the whole company in Iowa. You took a gamble and you took a bet on me. It helped to launch me into the next level of my own coaching and consulting. Props to you for reaching out to me when I was at an untested quantity.
You weren't untested. You might have been untested in the world of your own business, but for me, as many of you know, if you read the book Ignite Culture or from knowing me, my career was in executive search and more of organizational consulting and my dream. I did the Landmark Forum in 1996 and in 1997, I did the Advanced Course. Back then, they took you twenty years in the future. Twenty years in my future, I lived in Northern California and I was working with CEOs who cared about their business and people.
I was in my dream and my mind's eye was creating mind, body, and spiritual connections with CEOs. I was doing it in Northern California. Through no plans of my own, I got into this business because the business I was in, I was starting a software company transitioning from a search firm, and that software company blew up. I said to my coach, “I need the money from the software company in order to do what I want to do.”
She said, “Why do you need the money?” I said, “It’s because nobody will pay for what I want to do. I want to do that as a volunteer.” I had no other choice. I was at a non-compete. I couldn't do anything with hiring. I put the word out there that I was doing organizational consulting and culture. I got this client and I needed some shops and some depth that I felt like I needed support with and I reached out to Alan.
Alan and I took on over 500 people and made a huge difference in that company. The truth is, the CEO who was the general manager turned out to not be the nicest person or not interested in living true. He was living completely inauthentically and doing bad things. The employees started coming forth and saying, “This is not what you guys preach. This is not what you guys say.” We'd never renewed the contract on them.
It was tough. It was a big project but the consultant who replaced us, which does not do transformational work, teaches information. They said, “Whoever was here before greased the wheels for us to do that.” It was easy for them but every person on that management team has left, but one. That's the disadvantage of waking up and doing a cultural transformation. If you don't do the work, then you lack integrity. Let's take it back. I met you because I was a Landmark seminar leader and you were a former Landmark program leader, right?
You have a lack of integrity if you don't do the work.
I was a forum leader and trained other forum leaders for 26 years. I was also a senior executive and manager on the business side of the operation as well as on the program design side. I helped design some of the programs that others delivered.
Here we are and it's about 2016. Thirty years before you got into the business of transformation, how did you even know about transformation? I've read the book The Upstart Spring, but it didn't have your name in there. Walter's name was in there but how did you get involved?
I got involved. I was a product of the '60s. I thought I was going to be an electrical engineer. I went to MIT and by the time I got to MIT in 1967, I was clear I wanted to work with people, not with things. It was also the time of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I was expanding my consciousness in all sorts of ways. I was at Woodstock and by the time I graduated from MIT, I helped start a cooperatively run vegetarian restaurant in Boston.
One day, I attended a one-day Zen meditation retreat led by Philip Kapleau who wrote the book, The Three Pillars of Zen. I invited him and his fellow monks to come and eat at our restaurant. Afterward, he said, “Alan, you should come live in the Zen monastery and be a chef and cook there.” I went to live in a Zen monastery and that was the beginning of being clear that somehow, I was going to use my life to impact the quality of life for others.
When I did the EST Training in 1976, I went, “That's it.” I worked there for 32 years. It evolved from EST to the Forum to the Landmark Forum. That was my path. When it became clear, you became clear at that company in Iowa, there were gaps between what was being said and how business was being conducted so I left in 2014. I was grateful for everything that I learned, everything that contributed to me, and all the opportunities that got presented to me but it was clear that to stay there would no longer have integrity for what my purpose was and how I wanted to live my life.
I've been on my own for the last few years. Given the work we both want to see happen on the planet, it's going to happen by people working collaboratively together. I love working with like-minded people and like you, I'm very picky about who I work with. Companies will make more money, but there are plenty of coaches out there that will help you make more money. What I'm interested in is, “Are they interested in the whole package, the staff, the customers, the environment, and the community, all of them rising and benefiting?” If people are interested in that sort of work, that's a fertile ground for us to work in.
I thought it was interesting. I was doing something on Facebook. I am perusing and I saw a picture of you with Richard Condon and Anurag Gupta. I'm in the Autonomy Course right now with Richard and Jeff. My calling is, people are liberated. The whole format of that course is living true. It's been a little confronting for me because it's true. Companies will call and they'll say, “I want to break through in culture,” but then they'll behave the same way they've always behaved.
They'll expect the employees to get better and the employees to change but then sometimes the CEO, his or herself will not show up to the training. He won't do the work and then I have to make a tough decision. I promised 300, 400, 500, or 1,000 employees, “If we follow this process, everyone's life's going to get better.” If they choose not to do it, then I got to scale back. However, in the course of being in that class, I decided to go to Peru and to the Temple of the Way of Light.
Have you been already or is that coming up now?
I just got back. That was a very interesting experience. One of the things that I got out of it was that all of us solopreneurs or small businesses do need to build and you said it. There's a community of people out there that want to make a difference. One of the presidents said it takes a village. I think it was the Clintons with raising the children. It does take a village. What's your take on the whole, “It takes a village,” because you were part of a village? Landmark had 49 Landmark Forum leaders. What's your take on that and how do you reconcile that now that you're a solo?
It's good. I don't consider myself a solo, but I am in a business sense. Number one, I have this image. I like simple pictures. I don't like complex theories. Life is pretty simple and we make it complicated. The image that I have is, there's an evolutionary wave and I am a bubble. I am a drop of water in this evolutionary wave and so are you. We are part of the same wave.
Our job, should we choose to accept it, is to be the best bubble that we can be, whether you call it living true or living consistent with your purpose, following your calling, or whatever you call it. It's about living true. That quote that we both enjoy is, “To thine own self be true,” which is the ultimate form of integrity. It is living true to yourself.
What needs to be accomplished on the planet right now is not going to happen by a bunch of individuals. It's going to happen by folks working together collaboratively. It's working with some leaders at Microsoft and all they wanted for their senior leaders is for them to learn how to work collaboratively because by design, we're organized around ourselves. Our brain cares about our survival by design, by default, one could say.
However, if we're going to transform life on the planet, we're going to need to go against that design of our own ego, our own identity, and find like-minded people and multiply our efforts in that way. It's challenging. It's so much easier to go in and work on your own than to deal with someone else who's got the same goal in mind, but they've got a different way of achieving it. Learning how we can work together is a lesson for all of us right now. Collaboration is a superpower and learning how to collaborate.
If we transform life on the planet, we need to go against the design of our ego and identity. Find like-minded people and multiply our efforts in that way.
Have you read the book, The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton?
I have been exposed to it, but I didn't read it.
It's a great read about what is happening on earth right now. One of the things that he talks about, and I hope I don't get in trouble for paraphrasing, but that there's the whole Darwinism, which is the fit of the fittest, which is where our ego comes from. May the strongest survive. There's the genetics and genes.
When human genes were singular, we weren't humans, but when we became humans, they operated in cohesion or in collaboration with each other. That's how the human being was formed. He said the same thing that you said. If we want to sustain life on this planet, we have to get into the community in any anyway, any shape, anyhow.
The Buddhists said it 3,000 years ago. “I take refuge in the Buddha,” which didn't mean the Buddha as an identity. It was that consciousness, but I also take refuge in the dharma, the teachings. Also, I take refuge in the sangha, in the community. When Richard, Anurag, and I were working together on what we thought was going to be something that we sustained and didn't, in the difference engine, we talked about that for sustainable change, it’s a tripod.
1) There's an intention, a desire, or a wanting. 2) There are practices, but 3) There's an environment that supports you taking those practices. For me, how I've sustained myself is I have about ten people who I stay in communication with, either weekly, every other week, or monthly to support each other in staying true.
The capacity for self-deception in all of us is enormous. We can easily convince ourselves we're up to something we're not. It's why they call them blind spots. Other people can see our blind spots before we can. You want to have a group of people that you trust and empower to call you on your stuff and you can call them on but it doesn't have to be hierarchical. It can be lateral. It’s a group of like-minded people who want to empower each other to fulfill their mission.
In the autonomy course, we have the intent, the environment, and the architecture. Even in being keen alignment long before autonomy, we always had the three legs of the stool. Culture is the environment and structure is architecture and it's the life cycle of the human being’s experience. Nothing is new.
There are new ways to say it but it's not new.
There are 24 people that come together that don't know each other in Peru. You're together for twelve days. However, what I saw was missing in my life. I have friends and most of my friends that I am close with spend time in the world of transformation, which is looking in the mirror and peeling away everything that isn't what our intention is, but I don't. While I have friends, I don't have this community that I work with.
I don’t have a coalition of transformational professionals. I did find out that Jack Canfield, but I wouldn't consider him in the same realm of work that I've been doing, even though I did take his class. He's got the Transformational Leadership Council which is hundreds of people that do transformational work. There needs to be more community-centered places and groups like the Autonomy group where people could work together and experience the power of the tribe, especially for the sake of the planet, the climate, or raising children, you name it. It's a lonely world alone.
There needs to be more community-centered places and groups where people could work together and experience the power of the tribe because it's a lonely world alone.
I agree with you 100%. As I said, I'm indebted to you. I want you to be clear about that.
I don't want you to be indebted to me.
It’s not in a bad way. I'll state it differently. I'm grateful to you for the contribution that you made.
I could take that. You're welcome.
If you feel like there's a resonance here, if we checked in once a month and empowered each other in what we're up to, what we're seeing, what we're learning, and how we're applying what we're learning. That's an offer that's on the table.
Also, Alan, you contributed to me. I had not done a large group that large. I know how to do a seminar for 200 people who've already done the Landmark Forum. They already know about blind spots, have a possibility, and want some tune up but I didn't know how to do that. Since then, I've done hundreds of programs and they've all been very successful.
The thing that I face now and many people do, is if you're aware and awake. You're paying attention to the climate, global politics, the world, the hatred, the ego drive, the fit of the fittest, disease, and population, you could get overwhelmed by the volatility, uncertainty, chaos, and ambiguity in the world. What advice would you have?
Many of our audience want liberation. They think it has something to do with freedom, autonomy, or empowerment but many of them read and they learn through reading. They haven't done large group personal awareness training or transformational programs. What advice would you give them? You started in the age of Woodstock. We are not in the age of Woodstock. We are in a similar state but there was more hope in the '60s and the '70s.
That was a hopeful time. It was a hopeful era. If you listen to the music of those days, it was hopeful. I shy away from advice, but I'm going to address what's underneath the question. One of the people that I've read most since leaving Landmark is a man named Otto Scharmer who has Theory U. He studied with Peter Senge at MIT. He is dealing with individual organizational, cultural, and societal transformation. He uses the shape of a U. He says, “We're coming down the U right now to the bottom, to the nothingness, and then we're going to come up on the other side.”
What we see is, on some levels, the disintegration of structures. In some places, we see dark forces and dark clouds gathering. We also see little pockets, little rays of light where new possibilities are emerging and taking root. This whole thing about stakeholder capitalism is where people are realizing that capitalism's okay to a certain degree, but you need to change the focus. It can't only be about profit. It has to be about everybody winning. It’s not a you or a we solution rather than a you or me solution.
I'm a little older than you, so I've got less time probably on the playing field than you do but I still am taking a long view. There is a quote about the arc of justice. It's a long arc, but it's bending in the right direction. That might be false optimism, false hope. You and I won't know, but I choose to align myself with people who have a vision of what's possible and are making that happen. All there is, is what am I going to do now that's going to move things closer to the way I'd like? What I'm going to do in this next interaction? It’s not some grand global thing.
Esther Hicks calls it Segment Intending.
In every single interaction, am I living true to that purpose? I don't know if you knew. After I spent that time with you in 2016, I went to Peru. It’s the same place that you went to in 2019. I spent ten days there.
It was the Temple of the Way of Light. Here's a guy who spent 30-some years in the world of transformation and developing a curriculum. What did you learn that you didn't know in Peru?
It wasn't learning like that. I went with a specific intention. The intention that I went with is I noticed I was constrained by wanting people to see me in a particular way. When people saw me in a judgmental way and they are ascribing motives to me that I thought were not accurate, it would impact me. I wouldn't go, “They're wrong.” It would impact me and I wanted to be free in my heart of that attachment to what other people were thinking about my motives when I knew my motives were pure.
That was the intention that I went to fulfill that did happen with the help of the plants. I would tell people if I only had the dieta and spent ten days in the jungle with no plant medicine, it might have been transformational. If I hung out with Icarus, that might have been, but all four aspects of being there, the diet, the people, the location, and the plant medicine, it was a powerful experience.
Also, the flower baths.
It was a way of letting go and completing something. I got more grounded and centered on my purpose. I worked through some issues that was existing in my brain about me and Richard. I completed a whole chapter without him even being there.
Richard and Jeff didn't tell me to go. I went there because they were sharing their experience. I had done an ayahuasca journey in Sedona last year with a guy by the name of Johnny Coyote. He had studied in Peru, but he was not a shaman in the way that the Shipibo people are shamans. It was a good experience and I got to see my dad die even when he was alive, his spiritual death but this time, and I agree with you, the dieta, the twelve days. I ate clean for eight weeks.
It was before, during, and after.
There's so much free time. I read a book called The Presence Process. If you haven't read it, they now recommend that reading. It was by Michael Brown. It's powerful. I'm going to do a whole group with people that I'm friends with and say, “Come on. Let's take our presence to the next level.” At the same time, I read Bruce Lipton but what I got to is that even though I love my work, it was not the primary reason I'm here. The primary reason I'm here is to love.
I went back in time to my own child and to my little sister as a child. Also, me and her as a child. I don't know what will happen in the quantum, but in what I went through, I went back and healed the past and so many things are starting to open up. In my final two nights, all my past blew up and disintegrated into 1 million pixels. We were talking about it on this call. All the skin came off of me. I did get in the Landmark Forum that it's empty and meaningless. We are creating from nothing but I never got it on the cellular level but I did this time.
The work that I've done since you and I met is all about embodied transformation. A lot of the work that's out there is intellectual transformation. If it doesn't get into your heart and into the cells of your body, it doesn't stick. It's something you and I can talk about like an experience. It’s like we went to Disneyland, but it doesn't get integrated. A lot of work I've done since then is somatic work.
How do you ground things and those experiences in your heart and in your body so that it's sustainable rather than just a blip? I think you had the other thing that stayed since Peru. I didn't have it. I grew up in New York. It was an appreciation of nature. You get a different relationship with plants, rocks, and insects. It’s an appreciation that we're part of something. It's not about us dominating and finding our place and bathing over, but an appreciation of the natural world.
It's interesting because I did another episode and I've been coaching that woman for many years. She runs an open space, hundreds and thousands of acres of open space reserve. We were talking about that. How do we get people to see their place in the natural world? It seems like no matter what I'm reading, any spiritual text from the beginning of time and even now, coaching texts from recent, everything is connecting us to nature. If we go out of our house, check out a tree, walk to the beach, or go to the forest preserve, we will access a different part of ourselves.
I'm going to eat clean and get myself back into the dieta stage for ten weeks and see what else I can learn about myself and my contribution. When I think about working liberated, I think about the work you do and I do and the work that Richard and Jeff do, even Anurag and Scott. Ultimately, the purpose is so that we can all contribution.
People can be a contribution. What does a guy your age work on?
I started a course that's called Whiteness in the Workplace. It’s DEI work. What I'm working on is that whole thing of privilege. I never looked at life through that lens. How do we bring justice to the workplace? That's one of the things I'm at work on. What I work on is being present. That's will be the work until I take my last breath. I want to die present at that moment that's in front of me.
My wife and I have a meditation practice that we share. I work on enjoying life being of service. I got this phrase from Manu. I don't know that he invented it, but he was the first person I heard it from. “At any moment, we're either being a consumer of life or contributor to life.” I'm at work on being reliable for being a contribution.
I have heard that too but I heard it from a different group of guys. It's very confronting to think about how much of a consumer I am with my flights, going to see my grandchildren, taking them on vacation, and buying things. It's important for me to make sure that's balanced.
That's interesting that you reminded me of one other thing that I'm at work on. I'm at work on my legacy. For me, my legacy is the next generation of coaches and consultants out there. I'm at work on giving everything away that I've been given that I've either learned, been given, or had beat into me so that it lives in the next generation and that they're improving on it.
I'm not a book writer, although I am starting to take on becoming part of a writing group so that it can come a little more naturally to me. It's about, “How do I leave behind everything that I have been given so that it lives on in the next generation of coaches?” I'm working with a bunch of coaches who are in their '30s and '40s and contributing to them to accelerate their learning curve.
The world, everybody or anybody who is managing people need training and development. There is no substitute for that. The last couple of questions. The first one is, how do you stay courageous for the big cause, for the healing of the planet, and the healing of the people on the planet?
I don't know whether it's genetic or karmic or what it is, but for me, I don't believe in retiring. I'm refiring. I don't retire. I refire. It's like the engine. I stay young by looking for where I can contribute and each day for me is an opportunity to live true to my purpose. I don't have to work on it. Having conversations with people is an opportunity to be a contribution. I don't have to get my game face on or a game head-on. For me, the game is being alive and as long as I'm breathing, there's an opportunity to be courageous and to be at risk.
The last and final question is if somebody's just entering into this world of wanting to be awake, and I know before we talked about the Zen Buddhist, is there any class that you would recommend for the people that are testing the waters and are not sure what to do and where to go?
It’s a real simple one that has no spiritual or religious overtones behind it. This is the woman who got me into a number of other folks at the Henley Leadership Group at Microsoft. It's a little 110 page-book and it's called Get Present: Simple Strategies to Get Out of Your Head and Lead More Powerfully by Sara Harvey Yao. That's for beginners, the people who are getting their toes wet.
The other thing that I find invaluable is going on retreat and being silent. I've done four 10-day silent meditation retreats through the Vipassana organization. I find that's a really good reset. It levels you. You get to watch and see and hear all the noise in your head and you can't act on it. You got to sit, be with it, and own it.
That's on my list to do a Vipassana.
There's one right near Fresno. There's a little gentler version up at Spirit Rock a little bit North of San Francisco. The ones I did were in Washington. I'm in Portland, Oregon. The Vipassana organization is all over the world and it's amazing. They charge nothing for the retreat. They give you a teacher, room, and board. In the end, if you got value, you make a donation. Their organization keeps expanding. It's not easy. It's a boot camp for establishing a meditative practice. It’s a great one if you have one.
I'm excited about that. Alan, thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you for the contribution that you are to the world and Microsoft. I will be in touch with you.
Thank you so much.
About Alan Cahn
Whether you work with Alan as your executive coach, leadership coach or as a participant in a training of several hundred, you can count on an engaging and transformational experience. Alan has the gift of asking thought-provoking questions that get to the “heart of the matter” quickly. The leaders he serves are left engaged and ready to take action on what matters most to their leadership and to their lives.
Alan has over 35 years of experience in senior management positions in a global enterprise, being an executive coach, a trainer and a consultant. He has a demonstrated track record of success coaching leaders to realize breakthrough results, utilizing his unique talent for disruptive/context shifting interactions. Alan brings a commitment to optimizing leadership performance and realizing professional fulfillment to each of his coaching clients. He can be counted on to bring joy to the client and the coaching process!